Reading Wars, a History

The formal declaration of war may have been issued in an Education Week article in March 1990 entitled "From a "Great Debate" to a Full Scale War," but the controversy over the best way to teach children to read goes back nearly two centuries and the two sides have differed over three distinct issues, purely linguistic at first, then financial/marketing power, and most recently a dangerous combination of social, political, and philosophical/religious differences, as we shall see.

Letters or Words?
Until the early 19th century children were taught to read English with single-sided "hornbooks" or primers, with brief excerpts from the bible and the Lord's Prayer. In the 17th century, they were printed in England and imported. Teaching children to read was so they could read the Bible.

In the 18th century, American printers emerged (cf. Benjamin Franklin), but the most important for the teaching of reading was Noah Webster and his American Spelling Book. Webster's "blue-back speller" sold over 100 million copies before going out of print in the early years of the 20th century. No single book has taught more Americans to read, and the readers all learned phonics first.

Although the reading primers always contained more religious content than reading instruction, Noah Webster's speller reduced religious content to a minimum, to the discomfort of many. He claimed his position was defending the Constitution's separation of church and state and its prohibition of an established religion, which was a great civics lesson.

Teachers or Publishers?
Tradition or Modern?
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Author: Bob_Doyle

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